At the Centre Georges Pompidou library in Paris, 1985. Photo by Martine Franck/Magnum Photos


Against public philosophy

For Leo Strauss, public life was muddied by opinion and persecution, so philosophers should shield their work from view

by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft + BIO

At the Centre Georges Pompidou library in Paris, 1985. Photo by Martine Franck/Magnum Photos

In his essay ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’ (1941), the political philosopher Leo Strauss painted a picture of intellectual life that should offend me as a person with political commitments to democracy and egalitarianism, and philosophical commitments to pluralism and against monism, yet I return to it again and again. I want to understand why.

Strauss proposed that a practice he called ‘esoteric writing’ has endured throughout the history of philosophy, as philosophers hid their most important teachings behind ‘exoteric’ ones. They wrote ‘between the lines’, using intentional slips and mistakes as trail blazes that intelligent readers might follow to reach their deeper, and more dangerous, points. The nature of philosophy, he thought, made this necessary. Philosophical questions tended to challenge the authority of the gods of the city. Without esoteric writing, philosophers might face persecution for asking difficult and inconvenient questions, questions that seemed subversive by virtue of their sceptical spirit. In what sense are the Bible’s teachings true, if at all? What legitimates the rule of kings? How do we know that we’re in the world at all, and aren’t brains floating in vats? The philosophical few appreciate such questions, but the un-philosophical many do not. Strauss turned his historical observation into a normative conclusion: philosophers should wall off philosophical investigation from public life, including public political life.

Late in his life, in a public conversation with the philosopher Jacob Klein before an audience at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, Strauss said:

Philosophy is the attempt to replace opinion by knowledge; but opinion is the element of the city, hence philosophy is subversive, hence the philosopher must write in such a way that he will improve rather than subvert the city. In other words, the virtue of the philosopher’s thought is a certain kind of mania, while the virtue of the philosopher’s public speech is sophrosyne.

We urbanites, who dwell in the medium of public political discussion, also live in the element of opinion. Strauss loved to intimate that a few of us could instead live in the element of knowledge, as if he were hanging up a shingle that read ‘Secrets, this way!’ The irony of saying such a thing in public is obvious.

I am bothered by the way that Strauss denigrates the everyday life of the city. Many aspects of the life of the mind intertwine with everyday life. Is everything from art criticism to sociology therefore opinion and not knowledge? Do the everyday uses, and instrumentalist mindset, of many social sciences somehow pollute those sciences? Doesn’t literature (writing it, criticising it) involve responding to the psychological and political dimensions of having a body in the first place? Or was Strauss simply saying that philosophy is special and different, unique in its ambition to replace opinion with knowledge? Such a division between philosophy and everything else demands a view of philosophy’s otherworldliness that not even philosophers can agree upon. And what about fields of scholarly study that assume political struggle as a condition of their very existence?

Despite these difficulties, ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’ raises valuable questions about the relationship between public politics and intellectual life. This relationship was more complicated, Strauss thought, than sitting at a typewriter and pecking out an essay or editorial in hopes of reaching a responsive general readership. It had always been fraught, not only in illiberal societies such as the one Strauss had escaped in Nazi Germany, but also in ones such as the liberal United States, where he eventually made his home and career. The modern belief in public debate as the means by which democratic societies work out their collective goals, Strauss thought, trusted too much in the potential wisdom of the many. In modern democratic societies, we assume that publics, made up of people first educated in schools, and who then educate themselves as mature readers, are the means by which intellectual life meets political life. Why did Strauss mistrust the public?

The answer isn’t simply that trust in the public is a feature of modern democracies, and Strauss was an anti-modern archaist, a lover of classical texts and their medieval interpreters, who seemed to him most true to philosophy’s private heart. A fuller answer lies in Strauss’s political and intellectual experiences leading up to 1941, which conditioned his critique of publicness and led him to view philosophy as an essentially unpolitical practice always endangered by, and endangering, public life and public politics.

Strauss was born into a German Jewish family in 1899, and came of age during the troubled years of the liberal Weimar Republic, which was beset by a multitude of forces on the Left and Right long before the rise of the Nazi Party. Strauss studied philosophy at a time of radicalising political differences. And, like many writers and intellectuals who fled the Nazis’ rise to power, Strauss took the conflicts of the Weimar years with him. In 1949, the politically conservative medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, then teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, refused to sign a loyalty oath proclaiming that he wasn’t a communist, but stated: ‘I have twice volunteered to fight actively, with rifle and gun, the Left-wing radicals in Germany; but I know also that by joining the White battalions I have prepared, if indirectly and against my intention, the road leading to National-Socialism and its rise to power.’ No esoteric writer, he objected on principle to an academic institution submitting its faculty to a political test.

‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’ was Strauss’s first mature statement of a theory of philosophical citizenship, which balanced the stringent demands of philosophy against the need for decorum in the shared context of the city. In his essay ‘The Spirit of Sparta, or, a Taste of Xenophon’ (1939), Strauss had described how the philosopher and historian Xenophon, in exile from Athens, adapted his mode of speech to suit the needs of the Spartans, who had been compelled to practise virtue in public. In ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’, Strauss examined ‘the effect of that compulsion, or persecution, on thoughts as well as actions’. ‘Persecution,’ he concluded, in an ambitious and bewildering line, ‘cannot prevent independent thinking. It cannot prevent even the expression of independent thought,’ because of the expedient of esoteric writing.

Strauss imagined a historian living in a totalitarian country who had been ‘led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion’. Such a person might pen an attack on the liberal view of the history of religion, which would provide a chance to recount that liberal view’s central argument – and, in the course of that recounting, the historian could drop clues that would alert intelligent readers ‘who love to think’ to the historian’s real sympathy for the liberal view. This is writing between the lines. It’s a way of reaching ‘trustworthy and intelligent readers only’, but ones beyond the author’s circle of correspondence. By writing this way, we preserve the possibility of recognition within an outer shell of misrecognition, even as the seeds blow far and wide.

Public political debate isn’t the pursuit of truth, however construed. It’s about ‘winning’

But Strauss thought that this practice was found beyond totalitarian regimes. He wrote: ‘persecution covers a variety of phenomena, ranging from the most cruel type, as exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition, to the mildest, which is social ostracism.’ Any expectation to perform virtue in public could become a form of censorship, though more mild than the ‘persecution’ of his title. Freedom of public expression, Strauss thought, was thus at risk even in more liberal regimes such as the US. This meant that a programme, embraced from the mid-17th century by many philosophers, had failed. This was the Enlightenment programme of hoping that widespread education – both in schools and the self-education of readers – would prove ‘the only answer to the always pressing question, to the political question, of how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not licence.’ Strauss, however, had grown up in the land of Bildung, and education hadn’t kept persecution from Germany. Although a great believer in the power of liberal education, Strauss didn’t think it could overcome the problem of publicness, which he seemed to think was permanent, based on a difference in the natures of types of people, the few (the wise) versus the many (the vulgar). How to reach the right audience, then?

Despite my political and philosophical distance from Strauss, I return to him because I sympathise with his dream of private coherence, of philosophers reaching understanding, appreciative minds despite the failings of the public at large. Publics are made up of confusing, obscuring things – circulated opinion and the misinterpretation of facts, our failure to trust our own judgment, and our sheer hunger for recognition. We make our way in public by conforming to its protocols. We stomach sophistry, and some of us even enjoy it. Aristotle was right to distinguish public rhetoric from private dialectic, despite their close connections, for public political debate isn’t the pursuit of truth, however construed. It’s about ‘winning’, as the writer Jon Baskin puts it, sometimes in the name of our version of the truth, sometimes for the sake of some other instrumental goal.

But it would be naive to argue that intellectual life isn’t shaped by similar forces, whether we mean the intellectual life found in academic departments, or in magazine and book publishing, across all genres. Academia and the republic of letters might attract some people who hate ‘the lie in the soul’, but they’re also defined by economies of prestige and stardom, galvanised by political disputation, and they run on social connection as much as on merit. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, with his theory of cultural capital, is a better guide to how these worlds work than Strauss. Many intelligent people would reject the phrase ‘the lie in the soul’ as naive. The sense of personal truth that it conjures might not fit their vision of an intellectual life defined by constant ideological struggle, and of politics as the most worthwhile horizon of meaning. But it’s easy for the ideal of reading and thinking in solidarity to replace the ideal of reading and thinking for one’s self.

The best way that I know to address the tension between private reflection and public life is through the art of writing, but not esoteric writing. I write for the general public and I conceal nothing – no ‘golden apple under a filigree of silver’, as in Proverbs 25:11, an image beloved of both the medieval philosopher Maimonides and Strauss. But I do imagine a slow reader, and I write sentences that encourage slowness. I want my prose to provide a space for thinking within the rush of the rest of life. I don’t want to exit the public world, but to make something like dialectic available in a world mostly made of rhetoric. To reject the public world, or to place it beneath philosophy’s dignity, would mean quitting the realms of shared and common life, or pushing aside human desires themselves, and I would betray my own humanity if I went that far.

I lack Strauss’s certainty about the distance between real knowledge and everyday human pursuits, frustrations and pleasures. Nor do I share his sense of a permanent and natural division between the wise few and the vulgar many, which in his view creates the problem of the public in the first place. And, when I imagine reaching sympathetic readers, I imagine their sympathy not as an absolute thing, as if we were members of a secret club, wearing the same decoder ring. More modestly, I imagine us sharing a sense of thinking’s curious tension with the rest of life, the way reflection is shaped by the very condition of public communication that we all share, yet takes on its own independent momentum. I hope we can address one another not only as members of various publics, but as individual readers whose judgment remains free, though we don’t choose the conditions in which we judge.

The life of the mind unfolds not in perfect privacy but in a shared world

One of Strauss’s great provocations, perhaps greater than the esoteric writing thesis itself, was his suggestion that philosophy has a private character, and that we enjoy an ‘inner-freedom from supervision’. This claim runs against the interpretive habits of our historicist era, confident that social forces so thoroughly condition our thought that, even in private, we aren’t fully free. Even the idea of an intellectual proposition being non-political can quickly come to seem like a covert political claim. After all, who among us has the luxury of addressing ourselves to anything besides politics? But there is an important distinction to make between the idea that our circumstances condition and even discipline our thoughts and the idea that we exert no freedom when we read, think and write. Karl Marx seems to have had this distinction in mind, in his essay ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852), when he observed that we make our own history, but not as we please. The real question is: to whom can we afford to communicate our innermost intentions? What kind of reader will try to think with us, rather than subsuming our contributions under the categories of political disputes in which, one assumes, they have already taken sides? Can we ask this of the general public? In my own writing, I presume that we can.

Strauss gives us a fantasy of reading and writing so well that we can circumvent the usual problems of publicness. His fantasy even suggests a kind of long-term conservation of wisdom, in the form of philosophical convictions passing from generation to generation. It’s as if younger philosophers would invariably pick up on the literary slips and interlinear codes of previous generations, as though that style of reading is inherent to the philosophical mind – as if there were such a thing as ‘the philosophical mind’, rather than a world of different methods and views. The philosophising of all dead generations animates the brains of the living, and is reanimated in them.

When I feel frustrated by the thoughtlessness of much of what passes for public intellectual life, I think fondly of Strauss’s notion of esoteric writing helping writers disclose truths to readers, wishing I could share it, though I dislike the way that he devalues common things. The life of the mind unfolds not in perfect privacy but in a shared world, and contingency characterises it, determining the topics and methods that we take up. The chance glimpse of a book’s spine in a library; the teacher we happen to meet; the article we happen to read. No absolutes. And if publicness muddles things, if it carries the risk of misrecognition, if it seems to drag everything down to the level of the crassest instrumentalism, it also sets the conditions for serendipitous exchange. You risk the bad in order to get the good. So I address myself to my readers’ thoughtfulness, hoping they will understand my intentions and then read me in ways that I couldn’t imagine.